The first time it hit me how important mentors are is four years ago, when I interviewed Ellen Fagenson Eland, former professor at George Mason University. She gave me stunning statistics about how important mentors are to your career.

Eland gave me a seven-step plan for finding mentors (yes, you need a small group of them). And since then, I’ve written about other aspects as well — mostly as a way to keep myself focused on the task because it’s so important and so difficult.

Getting mentors is difficult because it’s just like dating: You have to invest a lot of time in a lot of people to find the ones who will really change your life. Over the years, I’ve had lots of different types of mentors. The eccentric CEO who showed me that success does not preclude weirdness, and my secret mentor who popped up unexpectedly. But the one I am feeling best about right now is a guy in Palo Alto, Chris Yeh. He turned out to be a real gem, so I’m going to tell you how it happened.

1. Recognize someone who thinks in ways that complement you.
I was interviewing a guy for my column in the Boston Globe, and I asked him, as I often do, if he had any friends who would be interesting to talk with. He gave me Chris Yeh’s name. I was immediately struck by Chris’s ability to talk on a wide range of topics that I care about a lot. And as a Harvard Business school grad living in Palo Alto, he brings a fresh perspective to my own.

2. Do favors. Again and again.
I immediately thought to myself, what can I do for Chris? I asked him what he is aiming to do next, what his plans are for the future, where he’s headed. He said he wanted to write a book about fatherhood, so I put him in contact with my agent.

3. Stay in touch continually.
I did not actually do this myself. Chris did. He would call at random times, just to say hi. I know very few people in business who do this. Most people email or IM, or, if they really want to talk on the phone, we schedule a call. Chris was different—I was not really his friend, and we were in different time zones, so he made the effort to figure out when I was most likely to be able to talk. Now I see that this as a super smart approach I should have initiated myself to build the relationship.

4. Ask for a formal relationship.
When I started my company, I asked Chris to be an advisor. He said yes, and then he told me the best way to use advisors, based on his experience at his own companies: Call at times you know are easy for them to talk, keep them up to date, and ask them what you should be asking them about.

The first time I asked Chris, “What should I be asking you now?” I felt silly. After all, it’s a line he fed me. But now I use it with him all the time, and it’s actually an invitation for him to tell me what he thinks I’m missing, which is information I wouldn’t get if I directed the conversation the whole time.

5. Invest time.
I had talked with Chris for hours and hours without meeting him in person. When I interviewed Edward Hallowell about his book, Crazy Busy, he described his research about face-to-face contact—how meeting for a just a few minutes changes the nature of a relationship. So I decided to meet Chris in person. On a trip to Los Angeles, I decided to fly to Palo Alto especially to meet him.

The trip took a lot of time, but I discovered that, true to what Hallowell says, meeting in person makes the relationship feel qualitatively deeper by virtue of the fact that you get that whole other layer of nonverbal communication.

Addendum: I called Chris this morning to make certain it was okay to use his name in this post. And he said “Sure, and tell people if they can’t find a mentor, they can ask me questions”?and you can link to Ask the Harvard MBA.” So there’s the link. And see, I told you—you have to keep doing favors.

43 replies
  1. Dan Oltersdorf
    Dan Oltersdorf says:

    Thank you for that fantastic post! When I do leadership training with college students, one of my points is to be a mentor and to find a mentor, but I have tended to stop with steps 1 and 4, possibly fitting the others in here and there. Anyway, thank you. this is something I will benefit from, and I will also pass on to the students I work with.

  2. Norcross
    Norcross says:

    That’s fantastic. I have a few mentors right now, one of which is my father. He’s a liberal (i.e. UMass graduate) baptist minister, so it’s a perspective that is hard to find anywhere else.

  3. Larry Mathias
    Larry Mathias says:

    I agree with your ascertains that mentors can be important in helping your career.

    But there’s two points I wanted to add:

    1) Just as you pointed out in your article, mentors aren’t just for the young (some people think only of mentors for new employees to a company or those relatively new to a given profession). As a former CEO, you found value from your advisors, so too can anyone within a complex organization.

    2) Mentors don’t have to be only from your specialized area or discipline.

    As a communicator, I’ve found great value in finding an informal mentor in areas like IT and operations. For example, back in the day when the commercial Internet was still relatively unknown and untapped (1994), a technical analyst in IT first showed me the value of Internet. We ended having many conversations over lunch about the Internet and its use at the time (mostly research and academic). Because of his guidance, I was a very early adopter to the Internet.

    I’ve also used a mentor in IT to help me understand the opportunities — and limitations — of technology to accomplish communication-related goals. What can be done (with THAT company) and what is blocked. That person also shared with me the fact that the company was considering “putting a toe in the water” to see if Second Life would work as a virtual platform for presentations. Frankly, I never had heard of Second Life before that.

    The point is I didn’t focus solely on a communications mentor. As someone who is closer to a gray hair than a Gen Y-er, I didn’t let my age stop me from seeking counsel from those in the know.

    One last point — whenever I join a new company, I try to find someone who knows where the land minds might be buried. Often it’s the administrative assistants. While they might not classify as mentors, they are sure valuable to helping one not only survive, but thrive in a new organization.

    Just my 2 cents (although my comments are so long, it’s closer to 50 cents)

  4. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    Good post. I have benefited from a few mentors at different points in time and I have mentored and continue to mentor many people, young and old, so I sort of echo one of Larry Mathias’s points.

    I would however not use the word “favour” overly often. It somehow smacks of score-keeping, to me, I hasten to add. I do things to help people from whom I may never get any “favours” back and I am perfectly ok to help them, just like that.

    In my view, transcending the transactional mentality is the foundation of the best relationships that seem easy and are long-lasting.

    * * * * * * *

    Yeah, I think you’re right about the word favor. I actually think of it as just helping whenever you can. Helping would have been a better term. I think that it’s hard to feel helpful to the person who is mentoring you, but it pays off to look for ways. Helping people – anyone – is always good.

    -Penelope

  5. Glad
    Glad says:

    Great topic. I am currently looking for a mentors, but having little luck. For one, it seems the relationship should develop naturally and not be planned or forced. Secondly, I don’t know where to look. Are there organizations that foster mentor-“mentee” relationships?

    P.S. I discovered your blog in Chicago when I was attending the Ragan Conference. Your blog is one of the great things I brought back from Chicago. Thanks and keep up the good work.

  6. Lisa Nielsen
    Lisa Nielsen says:

    @Shefaly comments that it works the same way in education and @micsmith doesn't know where to look. I work in education and I'd like to share a new concept called personal learning networks (pln) that has gained popularity in my field. I elaborate on what this is at
    http://theinnovativeeducator.blogspot.com/2008/04/5-things-you-can-do-to-begin-developing.html. The idea is in alignment with what @micsmith feels about a mentorship being one that develops naturally and is not planned or forced. PLNs are created by an individual learner, specific to the learner's needs extending relevant learning connections to like-interested people around the globe. They provide individuals with learning and access to leaders and experts around the world bringing together communities, resources and information. It's a pretty powerful concept. I've learned more from my network then I could learn in any other way. Once you develop your network, you have your top go-to people who end up serving in the capacity of mentors for you and you become mentors for others too.

    Lisa Nielsen – €“ The Innovative Educator

  7. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    Penelope,

    Honored to be your “mentor”, though as Ben and others might point out, I don’t act or sound like most people’s idea of a mentor!

  8. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    @ Lisa:

    Actually micsmith thinks it is the same in education and Glad is having no luck.

    I merely think that a relationship must transcend transactions if it is to last and feel natural, not forced :-)

    I also agree with micsmith. Education as a sector is not very different from any other in one respect – that people and relationships are essential to having success.

    I have to say that seeking mentors is sometimes counter-productive. One young woman once said she wants me to be her mentor. I tried to probe her reasons why and she had no reason except that she found it very easy to talk to me. I do not and tried to dissuade her a bit. She also seems not to appreciate that it may be her desire to talk but it is my time. I have been bulldozed into this exchange effectively and I spend much time hoping she will find someone else more keen to help her with her particular brand of help needs…

  9. Alice Bachini-Smith
    Alice Bachini-Smith says:

    Just musing- can we say “friend” instead of “mentor”? If not, why not? Friends help each other out whenever they can, and often have different areas of expertise.

    Is it about how to connect in the first place? There seems to be anxiety about approaching people who know more than you, for fear of seeming to be on the grab. But it’s a joy helping someone out if they are just nice, friendly, interested and keen to learn. The blog of the person whose ideas you admire is a good place to start a conversation, and most people love answering well-intentioned questions.

    @shefaly, I couldn’t agree more about transactions. It seems to me that a certain type of mentor-seeking is transaction-seeking, and a certain amount of anxiety about mentor-seeking comes from knowing you want to be given something for free/ little. Maybe some people even make successes of themselves this way for a while (?)

    Looking for people who can further your money-earning career seems transactional, looking for people whose ideas you admire, to learn from which will benefit your life including your career makes more sense.

  10. Sumayya
    Sumayya says:

    Penelope, if there is someone who you’d like to have for a mentor, how do you suggest asking this person to play such a role without putting them on the spot or making them feel this would be a huge commitment? I have 1 or 2 people in mind (one who knows me pretty well and the other not), but knowing how busy they are with their own lives makes me unsure of how to approach this. Do you come out and say it? Spend time with them on a non-mentor basis to build up to it (seems a little manipulative)? I don’t want them to think of me as an obligation… suggestions?

    * * * * * *

    These are good questions. I’ve answered them in the mentoring section on the sidebar of the blog. Click there and look for the headlines that talk about how to get a mentor. It’s a process – there’s not one thing you do one single time to get someone to mentor you.

    Penelope

  11. Lisa Nielsen
    Lisa Nielsen says:

    I agree with @Shefaly. Perhaps if we just say friend it may make more sense. After reading these comments I realize that I have never asked any of my mentors to be my mentors, they just are and I haven’t ever discussed it with them, but I have learned so much from them. This is why I mentioned liking the idea of a personal learning network better. I have a rich network with about five people who stand at the top. I consider these people my mentors although I've never labeled it as such. That also speaks to what @Chris Yeh’s trepidations about saying, “yes” to some who request his mentorship. If we think of mentor/mentee it seems one-sided. The mentee should be adding reciprocal value to the relationship. I would feel embarrassed and uncomfortable about having it any other way. I’m sure Penelope provides tremendous reciprocal value to to her mentors and that’s one reason it works. I also suspect that she may have unknowingly become a mentor to those she considers her mentor. @Alice Bachini-Smith, I would suggest first learning from the person you would like as a mentor from a distance and sharing with them how they have helped you grow. Also, offer to help them on projects that make sense. You will grow by helping them. From there the relationship often flows naturally.

  12. Lisa Nielsen
    Lisa Nielsen says:

    Some sort of glitch in the comment feature, but the above comment “I agree with @Shefaly…” is not from Sumayya, but rather me (sig below). And, one more thought about what @Shefaly’s friend suggestion. It really makes a lot of sense, especially in the Web 2.0 world where we join all types of networks (i.e. Linkedin, Ning, etc.) and ask people to be our friends without hesitation. Another great way to begin a mentor relationship.
    Lisa Nielsen

  13. Jessica Bond
    Jessica Bond says:

    Good mentors are usually people who gain personal satisfaction by helping people and have a desire to give back. One the best things we can do as professionals is to recognize talented people and support them in their career paths.

  14. Kare Anderson
    Kare Anderson says:

    Serendipidy – checking emails at the end of a sunday and getting on from Chris Y and his colleague Kristine, confirming our talking next week. After interviewing them both I found them flowing with ideas, friendly, unassuming and open – so I wanted to offer them some suggestions. And, yes, meeting in person does make a difference

  15. Adunate Word & Design
    Adunate Word & Design says:

    I agree with Larry Mathias when he says mentors aren’t just for the young. I too am closer to the grey-haired set and find it’s important to surround myself with all age groups.

    Some of my 20-yr-old friends are as much my mentors as I am theirs. They offer me a fresh perspective, IT advice, and knowledge of latest trends, all of which are vital in my line of work: visual communications.

    On the other hand, I recently had coffee with a 70+ yr-old. I found him to be a fascinating source of experience, wisdom and inspiration. He recommended the book Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazi (also a blog).

    Each age group has something to offer the other. It’s important to recognize that and know you’re never beyond learning from one another.

  16. Susan Kennedy
    Susan Kennedy says:

    Great post. I might add that it is possible (and sometimes preferable) to have more than one mentor at a time. You may have a mentor who can help steer your career in one direction and another mentor who favor the other. Getting exposure and advice from different perspectives can be key especially if someone is trying to decide the next step to take or new skills to develop.

  17. Jim Eiden
    Jim Eiden says:

    My Mentor died in 2005 and I feel it on a daily basis. Bernie Ostrowsky was one of a kind. He wore suits every day along with a fedora. He looked old school but was one of the smartest people I ever knew. I met Bernie on a drive to a networking event and Bernie and I became instant buddies. He had a rolodex a mile long and he opened it up to me. I did business deals on the side and I gladly gave Bernie 10% to 50% of what I made.

    Bernie taught me how to “Connect-the-Dots,” and helped me see that I was not made for corporate America but better as a consultant and independent business person. He would meet me at the train station every day in the evening and the first question he would ask me was how the stock market did today. When I told him, he would then ask me what it meant and how the economy would react and why.

    Bernie taught me how to read a 10K and helped me pick my 401K investments at my day job. When I left that position, my 401K was up over 30% thanks to Bernie’s guidance.

    For an old school guy, Bernie was cutting edge. He’d read scientific magazines just so he could be up on the latest technology innovations and how that would be commercialized.

    One of the stock Bernie suggested to me was a Nano-tech stock. But he urged me to do my own research. I bought the stock at $10 a share and sold it at $30.

    Bernie died in his sleep. I miss Bernie and my life has been richer for knowing him.

  18. Susan Kennedy
    Susan Kennedy says:

    Mentors are important to one’s career but keep in mind that mentors can (and probably will) change as your career changes direction. The advice that’s useful at age 22 is different from the advice at age 32.

  19. Susan Lim
    Susan Lim says:

    I am going to be married to my mentor.

    Six months ago, I found a mentor. He is the smartest person I ever see and he saved me from a wrecked life. Three months later, we fell in love.

    I thank God everyday for this encounter.

    So, with all my heart, I truly agree mentor plays an important role in our life.

  20. Kate Hutchinson
    Kate Hutchinson says:

    I have two mentors–one is my former boss; one is my mother in law’s best friend. I met them both by chance, but I’m trying to get better at finding more. Currently I’m reading Sheila Wellington’s Be Your Own Mentor, which is pretty darn helpful; I’d recommend it to anyone else looking for mentors.

  21. Chris Bauman
    Chris Bauman says:

    Excellent post Penelope.

    Micsmith, does a mentor necessarity have to be someone you can have coffee with….what about someone that writes a regular blog post, I think you could call this blog post a mentor?….does it give you ideas, does it move you to action, does it answer a question when you leave a comment? If the answer is yes then I suggest that you have already found your first mentor.

    Penelope, without knowing it, your thoughts and comments may well provide a quarzi mentor relationship to many people…expecially in this digital age.

    I also agree with a few of the comments that suggested getting several mentors.

  22. Dale
    Dale says:

    Not all of us can or will obtain a mentor. In that event, we should all seek to be:

    a. As self aware as possible through being honest about our skills, motivations, successes and failures.

    b. Educate ourselves about our chosen career paths constantly.

    c. Educate ourselves about career thought and theory and seek to see our place/path/direction in this turbulent area.

    d. Plan a career path for ourselves. Remember, a bad/incomplete plan that has commited adherents is better than no plan at all.

    e. Ask the opinion of at least 2 knowlegdgable, forthright individuals who have no material interest in your success or failure.

    These steps may help you if you have no mentor.

  23. Trval
    Trval says:

    Mentors are so important. They teach you the truth about whatever business your in, and they show you the ropes. They also will show you what scams and pitfalls to look out for. Often seminars or searching online about a topic is a great way to get mentors. Indeed, it is hard to find a mentor but once you do, your life changes forever, as it did mine.

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